Saturday, October 31, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

(Moderate spoiler alert)

Saw it last night and I found it a weird sort of experience. I fell asleep for a chunk of it (it's long and often quite boring), but also I was also strangely gripped while I was awake. I was glad that it ended the way it did; if you choose a fantasy route, you may as well go all the way. Mostly I just felt repulsed, but in a dazed, attentive sort of way.

In a way I think we're being tempted to indulge in sick fantasies and think it's OK because it's happening to Nazi's. At least that's how it tries to sell itself, but it's weirder than that.

Here's what Tyler Cowen said, which is interesting, but a little difficult to make out. Steve Sailer's take is longer, easier to understand and also interesting.

cool quote

From Slavoj Žižek, I don't know much about him but I see his books in Exclusive Books. I think he's a radical leftist and Stalin and Mao apologist.
We shouldn't fetishise democracy - after all, you can have democratic elections where the majority votes for a rightist populist, and when it does, you have the right to treat the government as illegitimate. I don't think that this formal electoral procedure should be taken as equalling legitimacy.
in the same interview he says
I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible.
In other words, kill people who disagree with you, they deserve it.

Friday, October 30, 2009


A few weeks ago we the matrics had their valedictory. Since there are only 13 of them, each student got to hear a little speech about themselves and an award at the end. One got a toy microphone because he talks so much, etc.

At the end of the ceremony the matrics gave each of the teachers an award too in the same spirit. I won the "meat" award because I'm a pescetarian (they actually used that word) and I was presented with some wors. Ever since then I've had kids coming to me asking why I'm a vegetarian and then explaining why that's a stupid reason. They usually extremely confident (otherwise they wouldn't approach me, especially the ones I don't teach) that their point refutes my position.

What is it about vegetarianism that inspires this kind of reaction? The matrics know I'm a vegetarian because I went up the Orange River with them so they saw me avoiding meat. It gets mentioned in front of the school and then people investigate further why? It's not exactly like I've shoved it in their faces. But it still gets people so worked up.

I'm also unsure if people expect they're making a point I hadn't heard before when they tell me that humans have incisors. I can't tell.

we are doomed

is a book Tyler is reading. I like the title a lot. Apparently it's not about global warming (which is what I immediately thought of) but cultural decline. This is a view I don't really get, but I'm used to it. But apparently the author's complaint is that popular culture today doesn't measure up to exalted standards of... Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Fever. Huh?

I don't know exactly what's going through this guys head, but I imagine he's mentally comparing Carol Burnett to Jerry Springer and Cheaters not The Wire and Rome. There is just so much great stuff to watch these days that I think it's embarrassing to make such a display of your own ignorance.

It's a variant on people moaning about blogs for being self indulgent opinionated crap*. This may describe most blogs including mine, but there are lots of good blogs out there. I sometimes get the impression that these people think that being a blog reader necessarily means reading blogs chosen at random.

I wonder why people who deplore pop culture today find the idea of making some sort of effort to find good stuff so offensive. The point of reading or watching high quality stuff isn't that it's easy surely, so why demand that a randomly chosen example meet your high standards. Why isn't it enough that it's there and can be found by those who care to look?

*I'm prepared to defend this aspect of the bloggosphere to a certain extent too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

war and noble savages

I'm one of the people who think that humans are naturally pretty violent and that modern society constrains this tendency. I think that when tribes fought with each other it usually had a very bloody outcome. Many people disagree and think humans are naturally peaceful and that modern society has corrupted us into becoming more violent. The noble savage vision of humans.

I've often heard and read that when hunter gather tribes fought it was mostly ceremonial and conflict would generally end when the first person was killed. The thing that strikes me about this vision, is that it is still extremely violent but modern standards!

Assuming this view of tribal war is true, and these confrontations happened every couple of years, most people would end up seeing several of their tribe members killed in these ceremonial battles over their lifetimes, which if you scaled up to modern populations would result in astronomical death rates.

America is a violent place by developed country standards with a murder rate of about 10 per one hundred thousand people per year. Having that murder rate in a hunter gatherer society would mean that a typical person would never know anyone who was killed.

The noble savage account is still pretty damn savage.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the trivial benefits of consumer culture

I find a common pattern emerging in discussions I have about the merits of the free market. It's a feature of stuff produced in the market (I think) that there are trends towards variety in products and each individual product generally getting better, in quality and features. I already feel myself getting into trouble as I think many people will object to the quality claim and think that increased choice is actually a bad thing. But let's say we grant the premise.

Recently I used TV series as an example of this trend and my friend agreed that they were getting better and that there are lots of them but claimed that the benefits were trivial and so didn't matter.

But even if we grant that the benefits are trivial to each individual, it doesn't follow that they don't matter in the grand scheme of things and I think this attitude is where we can easily get into trouble.

In politics I think it's really easy to get into the habit of seeing any individual expense as a negligible part of total spending. A corrupt official might rationalise his corruption as costing each taxpayer only 5 cents. Even homeless people wouldn't miss 5 cents! It doesn't make a difference to anyone else but it makes a big difference to me! I doubt this is the exact thought process but I'm sure something of this attitude is involved. It's very different emotionally if there are highly visible victims.

But when it comes to politicians, I think we can agree that stealing a million rand from the general taxpayer should be treated with the same severity as stealing a million from only a few people. It's really important to establish the convention against corruption because a generally corrupt government is terrible for a country's citizens even if a single instance isn't a big deal.

Similarly, trivial benefits widely spread do add up. And while we wouldn't (and don't) notice if one of these benefits vanishes (or fails to materialise), we should take seriously the protection of the system that encourages these trivial benefits to proliferate.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The Chesterhouse prize giving was a couple of weeks ago. One of the awards was to the winner of our history essay contest who spoke about his essay. The topic was Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement in the run up to the second world war.

It was the standard story that I was taught and exists in the popular consciousness. Chamberlain was a coward who could have prevented the second world war if he'd invaded Germany after Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Even though I know the story I'd forgotten the sheer amount of contempt for Chamberlain. I shouldn't have, the word appeasement is still dirty and most people know where it comes from.

What struck me most about the talk is how uneasily this view sits with anti-Iraq war opinion. I think the standard story is more or less right in each case, but it's more or less the same story in each case.

I think the moral of the story is that there are no easy answers in situations like this. There's just a choice between bad options.

My impression is that many people are perfectly comfortable with this tension.

cd tray fight

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

more about science

My last post was about how, if you start with a strong conviction that creationism is true (and some people have this drummed into them from an early age), the belief can persist for roughly the same reasons that scientists belief in evolution persists. And how we can seem as frustrating to them as they are to us.

I've actually had similar thoughts about economics. One of the assumptions that economists make is that people are rational. So if you see some puzzling behaviour, we should think twice about concluding that people people (or the institutional arrangement) are messing up. There's probably something going on that explains what's going on in a way that makes the behaviour seem much more reasonable.

This is usually true even though we know for damn sure that individuals are not especially rational. If people are doing something in a familiar, reasonably clearly incentivised situation, their behaviour probably more or less makes sense.

The difference between this and evolution though, is that though most of people in my extended social group are willing to sign up to, and defend evolution, they're not that keen on markets, so when they see outcomes they don't like, stories about how it actually makes sense for people to be doing what they're doing seem forced and pretty lame.

I think this is part of the reason for skepticism about quite a lot of the accepted wisdom in economics.

Monday, October 12, 2009

evolution and religion

I'm very much in the evolution/science camp of this issue, but something has been floating around in my mind vaguely for a while now and it relates to what what we mean by science at all.

We in the science camp more or less know the big answer behind each question; evolution did it. So when some creationist triumphantly claims that evolution doesn't explain how a squirrels knee joint could have come to be, we don't freak out. The answer is something like, well we haven't specifically studied that yet, but we're confident that the answer will fit with the evolution story, just like everything else has.

This is all fine, but the trouble is that it can very easily look like, or actually become (in some cases I'm sure) a story that's made up specifically to fit with your theory, which is bad.

In reality, there's bound to be some of this going on.

The thing is though that sciency types often gripe at religious types for exactly this.

Religious people also know the big answer which lies behind all the questions. God did it. People like me then ask why evil exists if God is omnipotent and all loving. The religious can just say, well that's an interesting problem, but the answer will fit with the God story, just like everything else has. Here's a nice theodicy!

Sure, the story looks suspiciously like we're arguing for a specific conclusion from the start, which may not even consider other possible explanations, but how is this different to those evolution types? Huh?

Added: A reader commented to me that this was another of my anti-religious posts. Weird how different things can seem to different people...


Friday, October 09, 2009

I don't know why I find this so funny

Seriously I don't. But I just can't stop laughing.


Barack Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh well, it doesn't make less sense to me than Al Gore winning it...

Incidentally, Stanislav Petrov, who deviated from standard protocol and declared a missile attack warning a false alarm thereby preventing possible nuclear war, has not won the award.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

the singularity may be near

but not near enough for me.

For a few months I've had two phones which means that I can use the one to find the other one by calling it. I resort to this method more often than you might think.

It's getting to the point where I'm getting genuinely annoyed by my inability to phone my keys and the access card to my block. I need that feature in all of my stuff.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Roman Polanski

I wrote a post on him in April because he has such an amazing biography (not in a good way). I included some background about the rape in the post.

I find the support he enjoys utterly bizarre. He didn't just sleep with a 13 year old girl, he drugged her as well as using his position as a successful film director with influence over the girl's career.

I'm not sure it goes without saying, but to many of his supporters, being a conservative or libertarian is a greater crime than the one he committed*.

*I don't want to deny at some some ambiguity regarding the nature of the rape, but he did confess and though he has suggested that he was the victim of a bit of a witch hunt, Googling around hardly makes me more sympathetic to him. Even from stuff he said himself, he doesn't sound innocent at all.